Branding STU: In an age where academic institutions have to sell themselves, what does a small liberal-arts university have to offer?

Academic institutions are increasingly fortifying their brands to attract new students. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Rapper Jay-Z and pop-star wife, Beyonce, applied to have their newborn daughter’s name trademarked in January. No one will be able to use the name in connection with cosmetics, recording, baby products, video games or films—yes, Blue Ivy Carter is her own brand—even before she’s her own person.

As much as we’d all love to roll our eyes at the couple’s seeming hubris, maybe they have a point.

Bill McGrath, CEO of OrangeSprocket, an agency that helps companies develop brand strategy and identity, said branding is one of the most important marketing attributes for any organization – and even any personality.

“Branding is really creating an experience,” McGrath said. “Once you have all the pretty stuff in place, it’s about telling the story from beginning to end and being consistent in that.”

Brands are the face of a company and its product, so why should post-secondary education be any different?

After all, it’s a competitive market: students have more choices about where they go to school than ever before, and academic institutions have to grab their attention somehow.

Harvard University recently launched a campaign defining its brand. In it, the school outlines its “enduring attributes” with a video of students talking about their experience at Harvard.

“Your brand is your essential promise,” Christina M. Heenan, Harvard’s vice-president of public affairs told the Harvard Crimson.

St. Thomas University has also worked hard to create its own unique brand and promise in the last decade. It boasts small class sizes where students aren’t just a number. It’s a school where you’ll “gain perspective” and learn to “think critically (although neither of these is particularly unique to liberal arts institutions).

“What makes a good brand is more about the philosophy than anything else,” McGrath said.

Jeffrey Carleton, communications director at STU, doesn’t like the word “brand.” It’s more complicated than that, he said.

“I mostly talk about St. Thomas University in terms of profile, in terms of image, of student experience,” said Carleton.

A school’s brand is much more than a sweatshirt with a logo or coffee mug with a crest—it’s even more than the education it provides. It’s about selling the experience a student will have during their four years at the institution, about the feeling of community and closeness—a reason to buy a T-ring.

In their essay Defining the Essence of a University: Lessons from Higher Education Branding, Arild Waeraas and Marianne Solbakk write: “In the face of increased national and international competition, universities and colleges in all parts of the world have begun a search for a unique definition of what they are in order to differentiate themselves and attract students and academic staff.”

McGrath sees nothing wrong with commercializing education. In fact, she said it’s a necessity.

“As a consumer when I compare products – and university is a product like any other – I look at that and part of comparing your product, not only is the quality of what you’re building, but it is the philosophical values as well.”

It’s also a way for universities to sell themselves on a global market.

Haoyang (Lucas) Liu has been a recruiter for STU since August. He’s travelled to China twice since then building up the school’s reputation and encouraging students to come.

On his trips he also tries to form relationships with universities in China. In May, Liu will return to China to sign an agreement with the China University of Political Science and the Law, one of the top universities in the country.

“You want to grow the international population on campus, you want diversity,” Liu said.

But is the promise of STU’s “critical thinking” enough for students coming from China and other cultures?

“Liberal arts is not easy to sell when it comes to certain cultures…In India and China the students more want to go into business or commerce or science, engineering computer science, that type of program.”

Liu said the small percentage of students interested in liberal arts are drawn toward

communications, journalism, economics and languages.

“There’s a reason they go to university to get a degree, it’s to get a job. Which one is easier to get a job?”

Even Carleton admitted journalism is an easy sell to parents looking to send their kids to university, citing its accomplished faculty and partnership with the CBC.

The programs are “new and innovative ways to study the liberal arts and apply them,” he said.

If the vocational programs are drawing the students from Asia, then the Catholicism, in part, has been a draw for students from South America.

“They’re not looking at it in the sense that they’re expecting a Catholic education that Catholicism is going to be taught or there’s going to be mandatory chapel or anything like that,” said Ryan Sullivan, director of international recruitment. “There’s a certain brand that comes with that, more with the parents understanding that brand.”

STU is the only university in Canada devoted exclusively to the liberal arts. According to Carleton, the first-year class-size enrolment has increased for the last three years, including a nine per cent increase last year—the largest in the province.

Whether St. Thomas is moving in the direction of more vocational liberal arts training; or whether its playing the Catholic card in hopes of attracting international and domestic students, branding professional McGrath has a word of caution: “You can never make a claim on a brand that’s not true.”


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